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The age of online visas

5 Jun 2020 by BusinessTraveller
Statue of Liberty and World Trade Center at sunset (istock.com/OlegAlbinsky)

It is often said that we live in a digital age. Most things that used to be done by hand are now done on the internet. Buying clothes, ordering food, filling in forms; any company that wants to remain competitive has been forced to digitise their systems. Those that didn’t are the ones you rarely hear about anymore.

The same applies to visa procedures. It wasn’t too long ago that applying for a visa was a nightmare for many people. Getting a visa meant a trip to the embassy which, depending on where you live, could mean an hours-long trip. For instance, if you lived in Northern Ireland and you needed a US visa, you had to go all the way to London to get one. Once there, you would join the queue, hoping that at least there is a chair for you to sit in while you wait. Once your turn was up, you sat down for an interview with an embassy clerk. What’s that? You forgot to bring one of the required documents? Back home you go. Not to get the document, but to make a whole new appointment.

It is no surprise, then, that the various embassies would often be flooded with complaints about delays, lacking service and all other kinds of negative feedback. In part to remedy this, and of course to capitalise on the changing market, countries started implementing digital visas. The terminologies might be different, but in the end they all refer to the same base concept.

What is an e-visa?

An e-visa is, as the name implies, an electronic visa. Like the regular visa, an e-visa grants you permission to enter a certain country. While they are both visas, you will often find key differences between the two. Electronic visas tend to have a lower range of applications compared to the standard paper visas. E-visas are generally meant for either holidays or business trips, with some also offering the possibility of short studies or engaging in volunteer work.

The main benefit of an e-visa is the ease of applying and the cheap cost. No visits need to be made to any embassy, and no phone calls are required. Once you’ve decided on your destination, you simply fill in the relevant application form, and have the visa sent to you by e-mail. You won’t need to print it. The visa is electronically linked to your passport. Simply presenting your passport at the airport will allow you to board the plane.

Exploring Canada (istock.com/Lukas Proszowski)

What are these “ESTA” and “ETA” I keep hearing about?

Some countries have specific names for their e-visa programs. The two most popular ones are the United States ESTA and the Canadian eTA. ESTA is an abbreviation and stands for “Electronic System for Travel Authorisation”. It refers to the unique visa waiver program of the United States. The USA has agreements with a select few countries, which allows citizens from these countries to travel to the USA without a visa. These travellers can instead apply for an ESTA, which is the most popular electronic visa in the world. Other than the fancy name, it functions the same as most other digital visas. Generally, most European travellers get an ESTA instead of a visa, as it is a fair bit cheaper while still offering most of the benefits of the regular visa.

The eTA is the cross-border brother of the ESTA. As the ESTA is the official US electronic visa, the eTA is Canada’s version of it. eTA stands for “electronic Travel Authority”. It also operates on the basis of a special visa waiver program. Unlike other electronic visas, however, the eTA stands out due to its exceptionally long validity. An eTA is valid for 5 years, and it allows you to stay in Canada for up to 6 months per visit. This is even longer than some paper visas. In Canada, we see what the future of electronic visas might be: every bit the same as regular visas, with the ease of application that comes with the internet.

A clash of generations

While many countries have thus started modernising their visa systems, the marks of the older generations are still visible with many of them. The official e-visa websites are often riddled with problems: performance issues, slow servers, lack of clear instructions on what to do, and perhaps worst of all, a general lack of adequate customer service. For instance, if you apply for an ESTA and it is rejected, you are never told the reason why it was rejected. Calling won’t help. Submitting a new application could therefore lead to it being rejected again for the exact same unknown reason.

It is for these reasons that many travellers turn to private visa agencies. For a minor service fee, they will take most of the work out of your hands. Always be weary though; predatory companies have been known to vastly inflate the prices of the visas, far beyond what is reasonable. Make sure that if you apply through a private visa agency, it is a reputable one where you have clear access to customer feedback from previous clients.

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